Chianina Is in Steakhouse Limbo
The new Chianina Steakhouse in Long Beach didn't intend to operate this long without a permanent liquor license. Open since late December, a snafu with the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) means it's still waiting for it (it's expected by early March). Until then, Chianina is stuck in steakhouse limbo—a special kind of fine-dining purgatory. When you eat there, you feel the palpable sense of anticipation in the air. All around there are signs the restaurant is stymied from being the steakhouse it wants to be. You enter through a glass archway of wine bottles that, at this point, function as little more than decoration. There's a gorgeous bar that occupies half the restaurant with dozens of spit-shined wine goblets and decanters on the shelves—but no bartender. Throughout the darkly lit, windowless dining room, you notice the odd sight of people eating what's probably one of the most expensive steak dinners in Long Beach, but with only water and iced tea to wash it down.
You don't realize how strange it is to not see wine served at a steakhouse until you don't see it. This, you think to yourself, must be how it felt during Prohibition. And it's kind of sad.
The sobering fact is a $50 steak without wine is a hard sell, attractive maybe only to people on a 12-step program. Because of this, Chianina has been forced to cut back its hours. Until it gets that license, it has furloughed a majority of its staff and can only afford to operate three days per week, from Thursday to Saturday nights. And when you chat with the manager, the waiting game with the California ABC is all he talks about. That, and the cattle Chianina is raising in Iowa. Yes, Chianina is also waiting for that. The steakhouse, which is owned by the same group that owns Michael's On Naples a few doors down, is raising—and then eventually cooking—its own cattle. At this very moment, as you chew on your salad, there are cows grazing in the Midwest earmarked for your nearly $200 future Porterhouse.
Chianina Steakhouse, 5716 E. Second St., Long Beach, (562) 434-2333; www.chianina.com. Open Thurs.-Sat., 6-9 p.m. Dinner for two, $100-$150, food only. No alcohol . . . yet.
These Chianina cows are a special 2,200-year-old breed from Central Italy. The restaurant's color scheme—heck, its whole motif—is designed in anticipation of them; Chianina cow emblems are even lit up atop the bar. But for now, until they get fat and big enough to slaughter, Chianina is serving Piedmontese beef, which is no less prestigious. What is Piedmontese beef? It's about the polar opposite of a Kobe cow. While Kobe is bred to be fatty, Piedmontese cattle are prized for their leanness. Like the Chianina cow, they are native to Italy and reportedly so low in their BMI they're actually healthy for you. You believe it when you Google a picture of one. They're muscular creatures, top-heavy, with the thick neck of a body builder—the rippled, bovine version of Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson.
And when you eat the $50 New York strip, you notice the difference. The meat is taut but not tough. And there's a certain bounce to it, with a slight resistance to your bite, as though the cow were cooked mid-flex. You do have to chew this steak; it doesn't melt in your mouth. But it's pleasurable. The beefiness seems concentrated and rich. And because it's coming from the muscle rather than the fat, it finishes clean.
Apart from the steaks, the complimentary amuse bouche and petit fours at the end, Chianina is not unlike every other top-shelf steakhouse you've been to. The sides are served à la carte and cost nearly $10 each. You can get creamed spinach, of course, but also rapini grown at a farm in Signal Hill. Did you know there's a farm in Signal Hill?
Also featured are five preps of potato that use four distinct breeds of tuber. Along with being mashed, the Russets are made into gnocchi cooked with butter and sage. The baby butterballs are roasted with rosemary, and the Yukons get turned into a gratin with grana padano. Unfortunately, the Kennebecs are transformed into a cone of fries as pale and limp as In-N-Out's.
The gnocchi are also made into a good, if anti-climactic, main course Bolognese with ground veal, beef and pork. But there's a pork belly appetizer that eases the nagging feeling you've come too early to a restaurant that hasn't quite reached its full potential. It's everything you expect of pork belly: blubbery soft in the middle, crispy on top, sitting in a caramel apple puree that tastes as interesting as it sounds, and garnished with creamy lentils, chicory and crunchy filaments of skull-rattling pork skin. But, oh, how much better it would have been with some Chardonnay!
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